There are a number of candidates for the last trace of Bonhoeffer on earth. There are his “final words”, spoken the day before he died. These were recorded by a fellow hostage Captain S. Payne Best and include the famous “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.” (Payne Best, 1950, p. 200) On the same occasion as he said this, Bonhoeffer also gave another hostage Squadron Leader Hugh Falconer instructions to “get in touch with his twin sister, Sabine,” who had been living in involuntary exile in England since 1938 with her family due to her husband’s Jewish ancestry. (Falconer, 2018, p. 125)
More recent than either of these, there is the account by the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp physician, Dr. H. Fischer-Hüllstrung. Does this qualify as the last trace of Bonhoeffer on earth? He reported seeing “Through the half-open door of a room in the cellblock […] Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling in deep prayer to his Lord.” Then, having offered up another prayer, Bonhoeffer mounted the steps to the gallows “bravely and with composure”. This led Fischer-Hüllstrung to say, “In almost 50 years in medical practice, I hardly saw anyone die so piously.” (Bethge, 2004, p. 1038)
The trouble with this is that it’s highly likely that the camp doctor fabricated this story to put himself into a good light. This is very probably the case for the simple reason that the Nazis weren’t particularly interested in people who they saw as traitors dying “piously”. Instead, Bonhoeffer had been stripped naked in an attempt to rob him of his dignity. Furthermore, in the place of a “gallows”, Bonhoeffer had been hanged on a hook as if he were a veritable lamb to the slaughter.
Although it’s hardly possible to believe Fischer-Hüllstrung’s account, there’s a far more reliable report from Flossenbürg which could indeed lead us to discover the last trace of Bonhoeffer on earth. This comes from Dr. Josef Müller.
Müller was, so to say, the Catholic equivalent of Bonhoeffer. A lawyer, he was employed by the conspirators in German Military Intelligence to carry documents to and from international contacts, in particular the Pope in the Vatican. Like Bonhoeffer, Müller was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Flossenbürg. It was here, on April 9, 1945, that a strange conversation took place when the spy hole on his cell door suddenly flew open.
“‘Do you speak English?’ asked a friendly voice [of a British officer who could move freely around the cellblock].
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Do you belong to [these] high ranking officers, who will be hanged?’
‘I think so,’ I answered.
‘I don’t believe it,’ said the Englishman. ‘Your friends are already dead and now are being burned behind the cells.’” (Müller, 1975, p. 252)
With that, Müller went to the tiny window on the outer wall of his cell. The window had either never had or no longer had glass in it. Müller described what he saw:
“Through the bars, I saw the watchtowers outside. Out of these, machine guns were trained on the windows of the cellblock. I smelled the biting smoke of burning wood that wasn’t quite dry and the unmistakable stench of burning corpses. Shreds whirled through the air. They whirled through the bars of my cell. I had the impression that they were flakes of human skin.” (Müller, 1975, p. 252)
This, then, is most probably the last trace of Bonhoeffer on earth – flakes of his skin whirling through the air as his body was burned along with those of six other members of the Resistance: Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Reserve Captain Ludwig Gehre, General Major Hans Oster, General Friedrich von Rabenau, General Staff Judge Dr. Karl Sack, and Reserve Captain Theodor Strünk.
Müller, who himself had been led to the place of execution twice the day before only to have been “forgotten about” on both occasions (Müller, 1975, p. 250), was understandably overcome. “My friends had been murdered. [...] I couldn't go on any longer. Pain shook my whole body, and I cried.” (Müller, 1975, p. 252)
Bethge, E. (2004). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologe-Christ-Zeitgenosse, eine Biographie (author's translation)
Falconer, H. M. (2018). The Gestapo’s Most Improbable Hostage
Müller, J. (1975). Bis zur letzten Konsequenz (author's translation)
Payne Best, S. (1950). The Venlo Incident
Photo by Maxim Tajer on Unsplash